Monday :: May 1, 2006

Uranium from Africa: How "Bought" Became "Sought" - Introduction

by eriposte

Are you ready for another largely unrecognized but important story in the uranium from Africa scandal? A story that goes to the (semantic) core of the allegation that Saddam Hussein sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa? Well, ready or not, I've been putting this off for some time now and it's a story that needs to be told in order to provide a more complete picture of the Bush administration's scam and their deceit in the aftermath of the criticism from former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

To introduce this series, I will use an illustrative example - namely, the background surrounding an important event that occurred in March 2003. The event I am referring to is the statement made by Mohamed ElBaradei of the UN/IAEA to the UN Security Council in March 2003 in which he made it clear that the "evidence" provided by the U.S. Government to support the claim that Saddam Hussein had sought and/or bought uranium from Niger was fake.

Close followers of the semantics of this scandal (particularly critics of Joseph Wilson) might possibly raise their eyebrows a bit at my use of the terms "sought" and/or "bought" in my description of the IAEA's response. Of course, I use that terminology with care because it is a factual description of what happened. Sound new to you? If so, join me as I elaborate on it. But let me make it clear that this post is not just about an elaboration of my choice of words. My word choice is merely an attempt to set the stage for a focused discussion on the "bought" v. "sought" aspects of the uranium scandal, whose roots trace back to at least February 2002.

[NOTE: In my previous coverage on the uranium scandal, I have demonstrated in multiple ways why the uranium allegation was false - whether it was sourced to the U.S. or sourced to the British. I have also shown why this allegation related specifically to Niger. I am not going to repeat that information in this series.]

The discussion in this post is captured in the following sections (all emphasis in quoted portions is mine).

1. U.S. Government claim(s) that prompted IAEA request for evidence

2. IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei's March 2003 Response to the U.S. Government's Niger uranium evidence

3. IAEA's Additional Clarification in May 2004

4. Conclusion

1. U.S. Government claim(s) that prompted IAEA request for evidence

As the SSCI Report notes (page 62), on Jan 6, 2003, the IAEA asked the U.S. Government for proof of their Dec 2002 Niger uranium claim.

Here's the original U.S. Government claim that triggered the IAEA request:

  • The Declaration ignores efforts to procure uranium from Niger.
  • Why is the Iraqi regime hiding their uranium procurement?

One thing that's very odd is how the SSCI Report seems to have deliberately omitted mentioning the second bullet point of the two points above. All that the SSCI Report says is this (page 61):

The fact sheet said Iraq's declaration, "ignores efforts to procure uranium from Niger."

In any case, you can see that the statements in the U.S. Government "fact sheet" suggested that Iraq had made attempts to purchase uranium and that an actual procurement had occurred. (In fact, the wording is particularly interesting because the phrasing of the second sentence and its use of a question mark indicates that the second sentence is a logical extension of the first sentence. This would normally mean that the first sentence was also referring to an actual purchase, and not just an attempted purchase - but I'm getting ahead of myself here).

Interestingly, subsequent to this Dec 2002 statement, the U.S. Government changed tack and only talked about attempts to purchase uranium. The relevant claims by senior U.S. officials prior to the Bush 2003 SOTU have been chronicled by several people, e.g., Paul Kerr at the Arms Control Association, Dennis Hans at Common Dreams and Media Matters. Here are the relevant quotes.

Condi Rice said this in a New York Times op-ed on Jan 23, 2003:

For example, the declaration fails to account for or explain Iraq's efforts to get uranium from abroad.

A publicly released White House report on Jan 23, 2003 said:

The Declaration ignores efforts to procure uranium from abroad.

Paul Wolfowitz's speech on Jan 23, 2003 had this claim:

There is no mention [in the Iraqi declaration] of Iraqi efforts to procure uranium from abroad.

Colin Powell said this in a speech at Davos on Jan 26, 2003:

Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for nuclear weapons?

Then came Bush's 2003 SOTU speech which mentioned, again, an attempt to seek uranium:

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

What's more, shortly after the Bush 2003 SOTU, when the U.S. Government passed on copies of the Niger forgeries to the IAEA, they included some talking points:

On February 4, 2003, the U.S. Government passed electronic copies of the Iraq-Niger documents to [DELETED] the IAEA. Because the Director of the IAEA's INVO was in New York at the time, the U.S. Government also provided the documents to him in New York. Included with the documents were the U.S. Government talking points which stated, "[DELETED] of reporting suggest Iraq has attempted to acquire uranium from Niger. We cannot confirm these reports and have questions regarding some specific claims. Nonetheless, we are concerned that these reports may indicate Baghdad has attempted to secure an unreported source of uranium yellowcake for a nuclear weapons program." The [DELETED] of reporting mentioned refer to the original CIA intelligence reports from the foreign government service and the CIA intelligence report on the former ambassador's trip to Niger. [SENTENCE DELETED]. [SENTENCE DELETED]. [SSCI Report, pages 67-68]

What is significant about the U.S. Government talking points is that they passed on the Niger forgeries that specifically refer to an alleged, signed uranium purchase deal (which was the focus of the "original CIA intelligence reports") as part of the evidence that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa. This is as interesting as the wording in the U.S. Government "fact sheet" of Dec 2002. (The other interesting part is the fact that they chose to send the CIA report on Joseph Wilson's trip - even though the CIA never considered that as credible proof of the uranium allegation - but that's a separate matter).

Here's the bottomline. By the time the IAEA received copies of the forgeries from the U.S. Government in early February 2003, the U.S. had made public claims that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger (Africa) and that Iraq had bought (purchased/procured) uranium from Niger. They also sent "evidence" to the IAEA wherein documents that alleged a completed uranium purchase were provided as support for the "sought" uranium claim. Clearly, then, the IAEA was looking for and responding to "evidence" to substantiate claims that Iraq had purchased ("bought") and/or sought uranium from Niger.

P.S. BONUS observation for uraniumoholics: The forged documents that have been publicized - the ones that then-Panorama magazine reporter Elisabetta Burba handed over to the U.S. in Oct 2002, which are the only ones that the U.S. Government has claimed to be in possession of - appear to only discuss an actual uranium purchase by Iraq or a signed purchase agreement with Iraq, and not evidence that Iraq was only seeking uranium from Niger. This is particularly interesting in light of the CIA 's admission on multiple occasions that the only "evidence" they had at the time of the SOTU to support the claim that Saddam Hussein may have been seeking uranium from Africa was information that originated in - or was directly related to some of the contents of - the Niger forgeries. To be clear, there are some complexities surrounding the Niger documents received by the CIA and the IAEA which make this observation less robust than it may seem at face value. However, it is nevertheless noteworthy and it's significance will become more apparent when I complete this series.

2. IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei's March 2003 Response to the U.S. Government's Niger uranium evidence

Here are the key portions of the UN/IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei's report to the U.N. Security Council on March 7, 2003 (emphasis mine):

With regard to Uranium Acquisition, the IAEA has made progress in its investigation into reports that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger in recent years. The investigation was centred on documents provided by a number of States that pointed to an agreement between Niger and Iraq for the sale of uranium between 1999 and 2001.

The IAEA has discussed these reports with the Governments of Iraq and Niger, both of which have denied that any such activity took place. For its part, Iraq has provided the IAEA with a comprehensive explanation of its relations with Niger, and has described a visit by an Iraqi official to a number of African countries, including Niger, in February 1999, which Iraq thought might have given rise to the reports. The IAEA was also able to review correspondence coming from various bodies of the Government of Niger, and to compare the form, format, contents and signatures of that correspondence with those of the alleged procurement-related documentation.

Based on thorough analysis, the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documentswhich formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Nigerare in fact not authentic. We have therefore concluded that these specific allegations are unfounded. However, we will continue to follow up any additional evidence, if it emerges, relevant to efforts by Iraq to illicitly import nuclear materials.



...At this stage, the following can be stated:

...Second, there is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import uranium since 1990.

Note how ElBaradei's statement referred interchangeably to Iraq having sought uranium and Iraq having purchased (bought) uranium. [Also, when ElBaradei referred to documents, he appears to focus on the "purchased"/"bought" aspect - which is not surprising in itself as one might assume at face value based on the contents of the known and publicized Niger forgeries, e.g., see my "BONUS" observation at the end of Section 1]. In fact, ElBaradei's choice of terminology almost seems to match the intermixing of the "bought" and "sought" aspects in the U.S. Government "fact sheet" of Dec 2002 (Section 1). Let's just say that neither ElBaradei nor the U.S. Government "fact sheet" used such terminology by accident (I'll show why in this series). The bottom line is that the IAEA's statements made it clear that the evidence provided to the IAEA did not support the claim that Iraq had either sought uranium or that Iraq had bought uranium.

3. IAEA's Additional Clarification in May 2004

For the record, let's also note here the comment issued by the IAEA in May 2004. As British Labor MP Lynne Jones pointed out (emphasis mine):

On 25 May 2004, Mark Gwozdecky, Spokesperson and Director Division of Public Information (MTPI) of the IAEA responded as follows:

I can confirm to you that we have received information from a number of member states regarding the allegation that Iraq sought to acquire uranium from Niger. However, we have learned nothing which would cause us to change the conclusion we reported to the United Nations Security Council on March 7, 2003 with regards to the documents assessed to be forgeries and have not received any information that would appear to be based on anything other than those documents.

4. Conclusion

Here is what I'd like to have readers focus on in this preface to my new series.

The claim that Saddam purchased or bought uranium from Africa and the claim that Saddam Hussein sought uranium from Africa have both been used (sometimes in unison, sometimes independently of each other) to describe the alleged evidence regarding Iraq's quest for uranium. Joseph Wilson's critics frequently fall back upon the "sought" uranium claim to allege that somehow Wilson did not debunk that part of the claim (he did). But the reality is actually not as simple as they think it is. There is an enormous amount of evidence that their interpretation of the term "sought" is not what they think it is.

In this series, I will discuss the known origins of the "bought" and "sought" aspects of the uranium claim and how "bought" became "sought". The findings, as they say, are revealing.

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